Iraqi museum struggles to recover lost artefacts and glory

It was one of the most impressive collections of historical artefacts in the world.

But in the seven years since Saddam Hussein was ousted, Baghdad's National Museum has struggled to recover not just its pillaged treasures, but also its lost lustre.

Officially reopened with great fanfare in February 2009, a cloud now hangs over the imposing brick structure in the centre of the Iraqi capital, once again closed to the public, this time for renovation.

"We plan to rehabilitate the galleries, strengthen security measures and install new lighting and air conditioning systems," says museum director Amira Edan, sitting in her cavernous but clearly aging office.

Pausing periodically to turn off a noisy, archaic air conditioner so that she could be heard, Edan conceded she did not know when its 24 galleries would re-open to the public after the latest closure.

The most impressive remaining items at the museum are unquestionably two stone winged bulls, which each weigh 38 tonnes, and the murals depicting the reign of Sargon II, extending from 722 to 705 BC, from the Assyrian capital of Dur-Sarrukin.

But while the museum once housed one of the world's most complete Mesopotamian collections, around 15,000 statues and priceless pieces were looted when it was ransacked in April 2003 after Saddam's ouster.

Vandals smashed numerous antiquities and beheaded statues, while professional thieves selected valuable items for smuggling.

Tens of thousands of items were also stolen from archaeological sites in the decades preceding the invasion.

As a result, instead of recounting the civilisations of Sumer, Babylon or the Abbasids with artefacts dating back 9,000 years, many of the museum's galleries remain in semi-darkness.

A large statue of Abdul Karim Qassim, Iraq's first president after its monarchy was overthrown in 1958, sits in a largely empty hall alongside construction materials.

And even after the museum nominally "re-opened" last year, it's doors were not open to the general public, as only schoolchildren and other pre-arranged groups were allowed to visit.

But items are slowly being recovered - the government periodically says it has received hundreds of lost antiquities, with two such announcements having been made this month.

Most of the items returned thus far have come from neighbouring Jordan, but several have also been recovered from Syria and the United States, and others from as far afield as Peru and Sweden.

The most recent recovery announcement was on September 20, when antiquities officials said more than 600 artefacts had been mistakenly stored in a warehouse for nearly two years after being seized by US customs.

And on September 7, Iraq's foreign ministry said it had received another 500 pieces repatriated from the United States, including several hundred tablets miraculously saved from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We have recovered more than 5,000 items taken from the museum's collections," Edan says, adding that the bounty would be much higher, but she laments, "I need more teams, I need more funds."

Among the museum's hundred-odd employees are just three "investigators", consigned to a room on the complex's first floor, poring over Internet web sites and scanning details of private collections and auctions worldwide.

"When we find an Iraqi antique, we alert Interpol's Iraqi branch, which passes the information on to the country where the item is being housed," explains the team's chief Abbas Khodheir.

Court proceedings that result from their investigations are often lengthy and require myriad details.

As an example, Edan cites a case where in 2004, 21 tablets and a necklace were confiscated by Spanish authorities.

"Finally in 2009," she notes, "the Spanish judge decided that the items should remain in Madrid."

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